J. Shogren,
Bird Bones & Muscle
(JAHA!, 2010)

On Bird Bones & Muscle, singer-songwriter and environmental economist -- two occupations not ordinarily linked -- J. Shogren, resident of Wyoming and Sweden, explores what he calls "pulp Americana." Though it means the same thing, Shogren conjures up the phrase, I imagine, to stand in for Greil Marcus's by now plumb tuckered-out "old, weird America." The OWA was intended to characterize the garish, violent and just plain strange world of America's folk songs. That's also the stuff of pulp magazines (when they existed) and of tabloid newspapers: unreason, insanity, amorality, unlawful behavior, disruptions in the space-time continuum.

Shogren bears the same approximate relationship to traditional music that the latter Bob Dylan does, namely as the major point of reference, not quite the thing itself. Any thoughtful outsider -- in other words, anyone to whom the music speaks in some sense but who grew up outside the traditions that formed it -- becomes disabused of sentimental notions of folk's meaning and appeal (i.e., Seegerist claims) and eventually sees it as comprising its own counter-reality, a kind of parallel world one can enter whenever a traditional piece sounds within listening distance and sends the imagination reeling. That realm -- Marcus called it Smithville after Anthology of American Folk Music compiler Harry Smith -- bears an occasional resemblance to the consensus-reality world from which it sprang but is, at last, very much its own place, a realm of shifting images, shadows, and elusive truths, dreamlike, unpredictable and sometimes brutal.

Like Dylan, Shogren is an intellectual dealing in pop music. He's funny, but the jokes are wry and subtle, drawn from a wide range of high and low cultural references. You may need to have grown up with "The Too Fat Polka" to embrace the humor of "Polkagris," for example. A few of his melodies feel, at least initially, jarring in their loose-jointedness. (Some compositions, it must be said, bear reasonably straightforward tunes and narratives; "Wandering Foot" and "Judge & the Hangman" sound something like actual folk ballads.) Still, even melodies that initially appear merely ragged and jumbled reveal themselves, on careful hearing, to be instilled with a decipherable logic. "Charlie Poole, Charlie Poole" seems at first blush an odd way to honor that first-generation hillbilly star but eventually morphs into something like an effort to bring the spirit of all Appalachian banjo music into a single piece. Once you notice that, you get the jokes and the song's deceptively tricky, but in fact always latent, accessibility. On the other hand, if you don't know much about Appalachian banjo music and have no idea who Charlie Poole was, you are likely to be in trouble.

In other words, Shogren may not be for everybody. Even so, he's for more people than are likely to grasp as much on a single, inattentive listening. It may be, too, that with its generally livelier production Bird Bones isn't quite so forbidding as his previous release, American Holly (which I reviewed in this space on 6 June 2009). Alas, since there's a price for everything, I concede that nothing here quite rivals in sheer eerie beauty Holly's title song. The new disc features occasional rock, rockabilly (with stuttering vocal yet) and gospel elements. They do render Shogren a little more humanly recognizable, which may or may not be a virtue. Like traditional music itself, Shogren's songs occupy their own other world.

music review by
Jerome Clark

11 September 2010

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